A report that was conducted, ostensibly, on behalf of the public, its full contents kept invisible to the public: It is yet another shock that is thoroughly unsurprising, another outrageous thing that does its angering out in the open, with impunity. It has become a running joke over the past year—the summer of scam. Scam season. The best scammers of 2018, ranked. Grift in the air; graft in the ether; cons, thriving in times of turmoil, having their way with the weary and the hopeful.
Theranos, the blood-testing company that went from “great hope” to “great hoax” almost overnight, has recently transformed into something else entirely: a media event. There were the newspaper articles and the magazine articles and then the book and then the ABC documentary podcast and then the HBO documentary and then, in due time, the Jennifer Lawrence–starring feature film. I’d call it overkill, except that having read the stories and heard the podcast and watched the doc and read the book, I have found myself, like a vulture on the savannah, ravenous and desperate and craving more—out for blood.
Why the appeal, especially when there are so many others scams-made-into-stories on offer? Part of it might have to do with the mechanics of this particular con: Any scam that manages to succeed as a scam, if you squint a little when looking at it, will also look pretty similar to … competence. Theranos became a Silicon Valley unicorn, with a valuation stretching to $9 billion-with-a-b, in part through means that are legal. It effectively siloed its workers to prevent intracompany gossip; it was exceptionally litigious with those staffers, and anyone else who might have questions about the company’s workings; its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, charmed investors and power brokers, almost all of them wealthy and white and older and male, until they believed in the stories the company was selling about itself. (The line between “myths” and “lies” can also be a thin one.)
This is all, as can’t-get-enough drama goes, notably bureaucratic. But that is part of the appeal. Critics will sometimes characterize entertainments such as The Social Network and The Martian as competence porn, named for the visceral thrill that comes with watching someone demonstrate both ability and cleverness when tackling a specific task. And to take in the Theranos story is, in a way, to experience a similar catharsis: Holmes and her deputy, Sunny Balwani, were extremely competent at fooling people—right up until the point, of course, when they weren’t.
The Inventor, Alex Gibney’s recent HBO documentary about Theranos, taps explicitly into that idea. Holmes famously—and, in retrospect, infamously—named Theranos’s blood-testing units after Thomas Edison, and Gibney embraces that connection as a central theme. He intersperses the story of the start-up with shaky footage of Edison in his New Jersey laboratory, reminding viewers that Edison was an inventor who was also, by necessity, a tinkerer: “I have not failed,” he said, of all that went into the creation of a functional incandescent light bulb, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But the film, in its comparison of Holmes and Edison, suggests that the celebrated inventor was also a scammer of sorts: Edison, too, had to talk up his own ideas, even and especially the most fanciful ones—to win the confidence that becomes a kind of faith—to fail those 10,000 times before the success came along. Myths are fragile things. What is a wild dream, the Theranos story asks, if not a lie that has yet to be made true?
It’s a perverse question, but one that is effectively—and uncomfortably—at home in this moment of atmospheric frauds. What if Elizabeth Holmes, as her self-authored mythology insisted, really was a second coming of Edison and Henry Ford and Steve Jobs? What if she saw things in a way others did not—and what if she simply needed more funding, more faith, more time? What if she just hadn’t gotten to 10,000 yet? Holmes wasn’t, and she didn’t, and she hadn’t, but in a world that is powered by hot air, the lines can warm and tangle and blur. “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world,” Holmes said, trying to defend herself and the lies that she’d told in the name of creating a better life for everyone.